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Title: Slave Narratives, Administrative Files (A Folk History of 
       Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves)

Author: Work Projects Administration

Release Date: October 25, 2004 [EBook #13847]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ASCII


Produced by Andrea Ball and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team,
from images provided by the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.


A Folk History of Slavery in the United States
From Interviews with Former Slaves




Paul Edwards, Administrator
Amelie S. Fair, Director, Division of Community Service Programs
Mary Nan Gamble, Chief, Public Activities Programs

Official Project No. 165-2-26-7
Work Project No. 540

Mary Nan Gamble, Acting Project Supervisor
Francesco M. Bianco, Assistant Project Supervisor
B.A. Botkin, Chief Editor, Writers' Unit

[Transcriber's Note: The CONTENTS section that follows lists the collection
of Slave Narratives; the SELECTED RECORDS listing after the INTRODUCTION lists
the nine Administrative Files included in this volume. An identifier has
been added to the beginning of each of these Files.]





















This collection of slave narratives had its beginning in the second year
of the former Federal Writers' Project (now the Writers' Program), 1936,
when several state Writers' Projects--notably those of Florida, Georgia,
and South Carolina--recorded interviews with ex-slaves residing in those
states. On April 22, 1937, a standard questionnaire for field workers
drawn up by John A. Lomax, then National Advisor on Folklore and
Folkways for the Federal Writers' Project[1], was issued from Washington
as "Supplementary Instructions #9-E to The American Guide Manual"
(appended below). Also associated with the direction and criticism of
the work in the Washington office of the Federal Writers' Project were
Henry G. Alsberg, Director; George Cronyn, Associate Director; Sterling
A. Brown, Editor on Negro Affairs; Mary Lloyd, Editor; and B.A. Botkin,
Folklore Editor succeeding Mr. Lomax.[2]

[Footnote 1: Mr. Lomax served from June 25, 1936, to October 23, 1937,
with a ninety-day furlough beginning July 24, 1937. According to a
memorandum written by Mr. Alsberg on March 23, 1937, Mr. Lomax was "in
charge of the collection of folklore all over the United States for the
Writers' Project. In connection with this work he is making recordings
of Negro songs and cowboy ballads. Though technically on the payroll of
the Survey of Historical Records, his work is done for the Writers and
the results will make several national volumes of folklore. The essays
in the State Guides devoted to folklore are also under his supervision."
Since 1933 Mr. Lomax has been Honorary Curator of the Archive of
American Folk Song, Library of Congress.]

[Footnote 2: Folklore Consultant, from May 2 to July 31, 1938; Folklore
Editor, from August 1, 1938, to August 31, 1939.]

On August 31, 1939, the Federal Writers' Project became the Writers'
Program, and the National Technical Project in Washington was
terminated. On October 17, the first Library of Congress Project, under
the sponsorship of the Library of Congress, was set up by the Work
Projects Administration in the District of Columbia, to continue some of
the functions of the National Technical Project, chiefly those concerned
with books of a regional or nationwide scope. On February 12, 1940, the
project was reorganized along strictly conservation lines, and on August
16 it was succeeded by the present Library of Congress Project (Official
Project No. 165-2-26-7, Work Project No. 540).

The present Library of Congress Project, under the sponsorship of the
Library of Congress, is a unit of the Public Activities Program of the
Community Service Programs of the Work Projects Administration for the
District of Columbia. According to the Project Proposal (WPA Form 301),
the purpose of the Project is to "collect, check, edit, index, and
otherwise prepare for use WPA records, Professional and Service

The Writers' Unit of the Library of Congress Project processes material
left over from or not needed for publication by the state Writers'
Projects. On file in the Washington office in August, 1939, was a large
body of slave narratives, photographs of former slaves, interviews with
white informants regarding slavery, transcripts of laws, advertisements,
records of sale, transfer, and manumission of slaves, and other
documents. As unpublished manuscripts of the Federal Writers' Project
these records passed into the hands of the Library of Congress Project
for processing; and from them has been assembled the present collection
of some two thousand narratives from the following seventeen states:
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky,
Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South
Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia[1].

[Footnote 1: The bulk of the Virginia narratives is still in the state
office. Excerpts from these are included in _The Negro in Virginia_,
compiled by Workers of the Writers' Program of the Work Projects
Administration in the State of Virginia, Sponsored by the Hampton
Institute, Hastings House, Publishers, New York, 1940. Other slave
narratives are published in _Drums and Shadows_, Survival Studies among
the Georgia Coastal Negroes, Savannah Unit, Georgia Writers' Project,
Work Projects Administration, University of Georgia Press, 1940. A
composite article, "Slaves," based on excerpts from three interviews,
was contributed by Elizabeth Lomax to the _American Stuff_ issue of
_Direction_, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1935.]

The work of the Writers' Unit in preparing the narratives for deposit in
the Library of Congress consisted principally of arranging the
manuscripts and photographs by states and alphabetically by informants
within the states, listing the informants and illustrations, and
collating the contents in seventeen volumes divided into thirty-three
parts. The following material has been omitted: Most of the interviews
with informants born too late to remember anything of significance
regarding slavery or concerned chiefly with folklore; a few negligible
fragments and unidentified manuscripts; a group of Tennessee interviews
showing evidence of plagiarism; and the supplementary material gathered
in connection with the narratives. In the course of the preparation of
these volumes, the Writers' Unit compiled data for an essay on the
narratives and partially completed an index and a glossary. Enough
additional material is being received from the state Writers' Projects,
as part of their surplus, to make a supplement, which, it is hoped, will
contain several states not here represented, such as Louisiana.

All editing had previously been done in the states or the Washington
office. Some of the pencilled comments have been identified as those of
John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, who also read the manuscripts. In a few
cases, two drafts or versions of the same interview have been included
for comparison of interesting variations or alterations.


Set beside the work of formal historians, social scientists, and
novelists, slave autobiographies, and contemporary records of
abolitionists and planters, these life histories, taken down as far as
possible in the narrators' words, constitute an invaluable body of
unconscious evidence or indirect source material, which scholars and
writers dealing with the South, especially social psychologists and
cultural anthropologists, cannot afford to reckon without. For the first
and the last time, a large number of surviving slaves (many of whom have
since died) have been permitted to tell their own story, in their own
way. In spite of obvious limitations--bias and fallibility of both
informants and interviewers, the use of leading questions, unskilled
techniques, and insufficient controls and checks--this saga must remain
the most authentic and colorful source of our knowledge of the lives and
thoughts of thousands of slaves, of their attitudes toward one another,
toward their masters, mistresses, and overseers, toward poor whites,
North and South, the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, religion,
education, and virtually every phase of Negro life in the South.

The narratives belong to folk history--history recovered from the
memories and lips of participants or eye-witnesses, who mingle group
with individual experience and both with observation, hearsay, and
tradition. Whether the narrators relate what they actually saw and
thought and felt, what they imagine, or what they have thought and felt
about slavery since, now we know _why_ they thought and felt as they
did. To the white myth of slavery must be added the slaves' own folklore
and folk-say of slavery. The patterns they reveal are folk and regional
patterns--the patterns of field hand, house and body servant, and
artisan; the patterns of kind and cruel master or mistress; the patterns
of Southeast and Southwest, lowland and upland, tidewater and inland,
smaller and larger plantations, and racial mixture (including Creole and

The narratives belong also to folk literature. Rich not only in folk
songs, folk tales, and folk speech but also in folk humor and poetry,
crude or skilful in dialect, uneven in tone and treatment, they
constantly reward one with earthy imagery, salty phrase, and sensitive
detail. In their unconscious art, exhibited in many a fine and powerful
short story, they are a contribution to the realistic writing of the
Negro. Beneath all the surface contradictions and exaggerations, the
fantasy and flattery, they possess an essential truth and humanity which
surpasses as it supplements history and literature.

Washington, D.C.
June 12, 1941

B.A. Botkin
Chief Editor, Writers' Unit
Library of Congress Project

Bearing on the History of the Slave Narratives

From the correspondence and memoranda files of the Washington office of
the Federal Writers' Project the following instructions and criticisms
relative to the slave narrative collection, issued from April 1 to
September 8, 1937, have been selected. They throw light on the progress
of the work, the development of materials and methods, and some of the
problems encountered.

1. Copy of Memorandum from George Cronyn to Mrs. Eudora R. Richardson.
April 1, 1937.

2. Autograph Memorandum from John A. Lomax to George Cronyn. April 9,

3. Copy of Memorandum from George Cronyn to Edwin Bjorkman, enclosing a
Memorandum from John A. Lomax on "Negro Dialect Suggestions." April 14,

4. Mimeographed "Supplementary Instructions #9-E to the American Guide
Manual. Folklore. Stories from Ex-Slaves." April 22, 1937. Prepared by
John A. Lomax.

5. Copy of Memorandum from George Cronyn to Edwin Bjorkman. May 3, 1937.

6. Copy of Memorandum from Henry G. Alsberg to State Directors of the
Federal Writers' Project. June 9, 1937.

7. Copy of "Notes by an Editor on Dialect Usage in Accounts by
Interviews with Ex-Slaves." June 20, 1937. Prepared by Sterling A.

8. Copy of Memorandum from Henry G. Alsberg to State Directors of the
Federal Writers' Project. July 30, 1937.

9. Copy of Memorandum from Henry G. Alsberg to State Directors of the
Federal Writers' Project. September 8, 1937.

[Document 1]


April 1, 1937

Mrs. Eudora R. Richardson, Acting State Director
Federal Writers' Project, WPA
Rooms 321-4, American Bank Building
Richmond, Virginia

Subj: Folklore

Dear Mrs. Richardson:

We have received from Florida a remarkably interesting collection of
autobiographical stories by ex-slaves. Such documentary records by the
survivors of a historic period in America are invaluable, both to the
student of history and to creative writers.

If a volume of such importance can be assembled we will endeavor to
secure its publication. There undoubtedly is material of this sort to be
found in your State by making the proper contact through tactful
interviewers. While it is desirable to give a running story of the life
of each subject, the color and human interest will be greatly enhanced
if it is told largely in the words of the person interviewed. The
peculiar idiom is often more expressive than a literary account.

We shall be very glad to know if you have undertaken any research of
this sort, or plan to do so.

Very truly yours,
George Cronyn
Associate Director
Federal Writers' Project


[Document 2]
(Transcript of Preceding Autograph Memorandum)
[Transcriber's Note: The handwritten version is included in the original 


Mr. Cronyn:

In replying to this letter I should like for you to commend especially
two stories:

1. _Lula Flannigan_ by Sarah H. Hall Athens, Ga.

2. _Uncle Willis_, Miss Velma Bell, Supervisor, Athens, Ga.

All the stories are worth while but these two are mainly (one entirely)
in dialect and abound in human interest touches. _All the interviewers
should copy the Negro expressions_.

I much prefer to read _un_edited (but typed) "interviews," and I should
like to see as soon as possible all the seventy-five to which Miss
Dillard refers.

It is most important, too, to secure copies of "slave codes, overseers
codes and the like." This item is new and all the states should send in
similar material.

John A. Lomax

[Document 3]

Sent to: North and South Carolina, Georgia,
         Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas,
         Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri,
         Mississippi, Oklahoma.

April 14, 1937

Mr. Edwin Bjorkman
State Director, Federal Writers' Project
Works Progress Administration
City Hall, Fifth Floor
Asheville, North Carolina

Dear Mr. Bjorkman:

We have received more stories of ex-slaves and are gratified by the
quality and interest of the narratives. Some of these stories have been
accompanied by photographs of the subjects. We would like to have
portraits wherever they can be secured, but we urge your photographers
to make the studies as simple, natural, and "unposed" as possible. Let
the background, cabin or whatnot, be the normal setting--in short, just
the picture a visitor would expect to find by "dropping in" on one of
these old-timers.

Enclosed is a memorandum of Mr. Lomax with suggestions for simplifying
the spelling of certain recurring dialect words. This does not mean that
the interviews should be entirely in "straight English"--simply, that we
want them to be more readable to those uninitiated in the broadest Negro

Very truly yours,

George Cronyn
Associate Director
Federal Writers' Project


This paragraph was added to the letter to Arkansas.

Mr. Lomax is very eager to get such records as you mention: Court
Records of Sale, Transfer, and Freeing of Slaves, as well as prices

Negro Dialect Suggestions
(Stories of Ex-Slaves)

Do not write:

_Ah_ for I

_Poe_ for po' (poor)

_Hit_ for it

_Tuh_ for to

_Wuz_ for was

_Baid_ for bed

_Daid_ for dead

_Ouh_ for our

_Mah_ for my

_Ovah_ for over

_Othuh_ for other

_Wha_ for whar (where)

_Undah_ for under

_Fuh_ for for

_Yondah_ for yonder

_Moster_ for marster or massa

_Gwainter_ for gwineter (going to)

_Oman_ for woman

_Ifn_ for iffen (if)

_Fiuh_ or _fiah_ for fire

_Uz_ or _uv_ or _o'_ for of

_Poar_ for poor or po'

_J'in_ for jine

_Coase_ for cose

_Utha_ for other

_Yo'_ for you

_Gi'_ for give

_Cot_ for caught

_Kin'_ for kind

_Cose_ for 'cause

_Tho't_ for thought

[Document 4]

Federal Writers' Project
1500 Eye St. N.W.
Washington, D.C.



     Note: In some states it may be possible to locate only a very
     few ex-slaves, but an attempt should be made in every state.
     Interesting ex-slave data has recently been reported from Rhode
     Island, for instance.

April 22, 1937


The main purpose of these detailed and homely questions is to get the
Negro interested in talking about the days of slavery. If he will talk
freely, he should be encouraged to say what he pleases without reference
to the questions. It should be remembered that the Federal Writers'
Project is not interested in taking sides on any question. The worker
should not censor any material collected, regardless of its nature.

It will not be necessary, indeed it will probably be a mistake, to ask
every person all of the questions. Any incidents or facts he can recall
should be written down as nearly as possible just as he says them, but
do not use dialect spelling so complicated that it may confuse the

A second visit, a few days after the first one, is important, so that
the worker may gather all the worthwhile recollections that the first
talk has aroused.


1. Where and when were you born?

2. Give the names of your father and mother. Where did they come from?
Give names of your brothers and sisters. Tell about your life with them
and describe your home and the "quarters." Describe the beds and where
you slept. Do you remember anything about your grandparents or any
stories told you about them?

3. What work did you do in slavery days? Did you ever earn any money?
How? What did you buy with this money?

4. What did you eat and how was it cooked? Any possums? Rabbits? Fish?
What food did you like best? Did the slaves have their own gardens?

5. What clothing did you wear in hot weather? Cold weather? On Sundays?
Any shoes? Describe your wedding clothes.

6. Tell about your master, mistress, their children, the house they
lived in, the overseer or driver, poor white neighbors.

7. How many acres in the plantation? How many slaves on it? How and at
what time did the overseer wake up the slaves? Did they work hard and
late at night? How and for what causes were the slaves punished? Tell
what you saw. Tell some of the stories you heard.

8. Was there a jail for slaves? Did you ever see any slaves sold or
auctioned off? How did groups of slaves travel? Did you ever see slaves
in chains?

9. Did the white folks help you to learn to read and write?

10. Did the slaves have a church on your plantation? Did they read the
Bible? Who was your favorite preacher? Your favorite spirituals? Tell
about the baptizing; baptizing songs. Funerals and funeral songs.

11. Did the slaves ever run away to the North? Why? What did you hear
about patrollers? How did slaves carry news from one plantation to
another? Did you hear of trouble between the blacks and whites?

12. What did the slaves do when they went to their quarters after the
day's work was done on the plantation? Did they work on Saturday
afternoons? What did they do Saturday nights? Sundays? Christmas
morning? New Year's Day? Any other holidays? Cornshucking? Cotton
Picking? Dances? When some of the white master's family married or died?
A wedding or death among the slaves?

13. What games did you play as a child? Can you give the words or sing
any of the play songs or ring games of the children? Riddles? Charms?
Stories about "Raw Head and Bloody Bones" or other "hants" of ghosts?
Stories about animals? What do you think of voodoo? Can you give the
words or sing any lullabies? Work songs? Plantation hollers? Can you
tell a funny story you have heard or something funny that happened to
you? Tell about the ghosts you have seen.

14. When slaves became sick who looked after them? What medicines did
tho doctors give them? What medicine (herbs, leaves, or roots) did the
slaves use for sickness? What charms did they wear and to keep off what

15. What do you remember about the war that brought your freedom? What
happened on the day news came that you were free? What did your master
say and do? When the Yankees came what did they do and say?

16. Tell what work you did and how you lived the first year after the
war and what you saw or heard about the KuKlux Klan and the Nightriders.
Any school then for Negroes? Any land?

17. Whom did you marry? Describe the wedding. How many children and
grandchildren have you and what are they doing?

18. What do you think of Abraham Lincoln? Jefferson Davis? Booker
Washington? Any other prominent white man or Negro you have known or
heard of?

19. Now that slavery is ended what do you think of it? Tell why you
joined a church and why you think all people should be religious.

20. Was the overseer "poor white trash"? What were some of his rules?

The details of the interview should be reported as accurately as
possible in the language of the original statements. An example of
material collected through one of the interviews with ex-slaves is
attached herewith. Although this material was collected before the
standard questionnaire had been prepared, it represents an excellent
method of reporting an interview. More information might have been
obtained however, if a comprehensive questionnaire had been used.

Sample Interview From Georgia

Ex-slave, 78 years.

"Dey says I wuz jes fo' years ole when de war wuz over, but I sho' does
member dat day dem Yankee sojers come down de road. Mary and Willie
Durham wuz my mammy and pappy, en dey belong ter Marse Spence Durham at
Watkinsville in slav'ry times."

"When word cum dat de Yankee sojers wuz on de way, Marse Spence en his
sons wuz 'way at de war. Miss Betsey tole my pappy ter take en hide de
hosses down in de swamp. My mammy help Miss Betsey sew up de silver in
de cotton bed ticks. Dem Yankee sojers nebber did find our whitefolks'
hosses and deir silver."

"Miss Marzee, she wuz Marse Spence en Miss Betsey's daughter. She wuz
playin' on de pianny when de Yankee sojers come down de road. Two sojers
cum in de house en ax her fer ter play er tune dat dey liked. I fergits
de name er dey tune. Miss Marzee gits up fum de pianny en she low dat
she ain' gwine play no tune for' no Yankee mens. Den de sojers takes her
out en set her up on top er de high gate post in front er de big house,
en mek her set dar twel de whole regiment pass by. She set dar en cry,
but she sho' ain' nebber played no tune for dem Yankee mens!"

"De Yankee sojers tuk all de blankets offen de beds. Dey stole all de
meat dey want fum de smokehouse. Dey bash in de top er de syrup barrels
en den turn de barrels upside down."

"Marse Spence gave me ter Miss Marzee fer ter be her own maid, but
slav'ry time ended fo' I wuz big 'nough ter be much good ter 'er."

"Us had lots better times dem days dan now. Whatter dese niggers know
'bout corn shuckin's, en log rollin's, en house raisin's? Marse Spence
used ter let his niggers have candy pullin's in syrup mekkin' time, en
de way us wud dance in de moonlight wuz sompin' dese niggers nowadays
doan know nuffin' 'bout."

"All de white folks love ter see plenty er healthy, strong black chillun
comin' long, en dey wuz watchful ter see dat 'omans had good keer when
dey chilluns vuz bawned. Dey let dese 'omans do easy, light wuk towards
de last 'fo' de chilluns is bawned, en den atterwuds dey doan do nuffin
much twel dey is well en strong ergin. Folks tell 'bout some plantations
whar de 'omans ud run back home fum de fiel' en hev day baby, en den be
back in do fiel' swingin' er hoe fo' right dat same day, but dey woan
nuffin lak dat 'round Watkinsville."

"When er scritch owl holler et night us put en iron in de fire quick, en
den us turn all de shoes up side down on de flo', en turn de pockets
wrong side out on call de close, kaze effan we diden' do dem things
quick, sompin' moughty bad wuz sho' ter happen. Mos' en lakly, somebuddy
gwint'er be daid in dat house fo' long, if us woan quick 'bout fixin'.
Whut us do in summer time, 'bout fire at night fer de scritch owl? Us
jes' onkivver de coals in de fire place. Us diden' hev no matches en us
bank de fire wid ashes evvy night all de year 'roun'. Effen de fire go
out, kaze some nigger git keerless 'bout it, den somebuddy gotter go off
ter de next plantation sometime ter git live coals. Some er de mens
could wuk de flints right good, but dat wuz er hard job. Dey jes rub dem
flint rocks tergedder right fas' en let de sparks day makes drap down on
er piece er punk wood, en dey gits er fire dat way effen dey is lucky."

"Dem days nobuddy bring er axe in de house on his shoulder. Dat was er
sho' sign er bad luck. En nebber lay no broom crost de bed. One time er
likely pair er black folks git married, en somebuddy give 'em er new
broom. De 'oman she proud uv her nice, spankin' new broom en she lay hit
on de bed fer de weddin' crowd ter see it, wid de udder things been give
'em. Fo' thee years go by her man wuz beatin' 'er, en not long atter dat
she go plum stark crazy. She oughter ter know better'n ter lay dat broom
on her bed. It sho' done brung her bad luck. Dey sent her off ter de
crazy folks place, en she died dar."

[Document 5]

May 3, 1937

Mr. Edwin Bjorkman, State Director
Federal Writers' Project, WPA
City Hall, Fifth Floor
Asheville, North Carolina

Subj: Ex-slave Narratives

Dear Mr. Bjorkman:

I am quoting a memorandum of Mr. Lomax, folklore editor, regarding the
ex-slave stories:

"Of the five States which have already sent in reminiscences of
ex-slaves, Tennessee is the only one in which the workers are asking
ex-slaves about their belief in signs, cures, hoodoo, etc. Also, the
workers are requesting the ex-slaves to tell the stories that were
current among the Negroes when they were growing up. Some of the best
copy that has come in to the office is found in these stories."

This suggestion, I believe, will add greatly to the value of the
collection now being made.

Very truly yours,
George Cronyn
Associate Director

CC--Mr. W.T. Couch, Asso. Director Federal Writers' Project
    University Press
    Chapel Hill, No. Car.


SENT TO: No. and So. Carolina; Georgia; Alabama; Louisiana;
         Texas; Arkansas; Kentucky; Missouri; Mississippi;
         Oklahoma; Florida

[Document 6]

June 9, 1937

FROM: Henry G. Alsberg, Director

In connection with the stories of ex-slaves, please send in to this
office copies of State, county, or city laws affecting the conduct of
slaves, free Negroes, overseers, patrollers, or any person or custom
affecting the institution of slavery. It will, of course, not be
necessary to send more than one copy of the laws that were common
throughout the state, although any special law passed by a particular
city would constitute worthwhile material.

In addition, we should like to have you collect and send in copies of
any laws or accounts of any established customs relating to the
admission to your State of bodies of slaves from Africa or other
sections, the escape of slaves, etc. Also, we should like to see copies
of advertisements of sales of slaves, published offers of rewards for
fugitive slaves, copies of transfers of slaves by will or otherwise,
records of freeing of slaves, etc. Public records of very particular
interest regarding any transaction involving slaves should be
photostated and copies furnished to the Washington office.

Furthermore, contemporary accounts of any noteworthy occurrences among
the Negroes during slavery days or the Reconstruction period should be
copied, if taken from contemporary newspapers. If such records have been
published in books, a reference to the source would be sufficient. We
have been receiving a large number of extremely interesting stories of
ex-slaves. The historic background of the institution of slavery, which
should be disclosed with the information we are now requesting, will be
very helpful in the execution of the plans we have in mind.

Copies sent to:
Alabama   Georgia    Maryland     North Carolina  Tennessee
Arkansas  Kentucky   Mississippi  Oklahoma        Texas
Florida   Louisiana  Missouri     South Carolina  Virginia
                                                  West Virginia

[Document 7]

Notes by an editor on dialect usage in accounts
by interviews with ex-slaves. (To be used in
conjunction with Supplementary Instructions 9E.)

Simplicity in recording the dialect is to be desired in order to hold
the interest and attention of the readers. It seems to me that readers
are repelled by pages sprinkled with misspellings, commas and
apostrophes. The value of exact phonetic transcription is, of course, a
great one. But few artists attempt this completely. Thomas Nelson Page
was meticulous in his dialect; Joel Chandler Harris less meticulous but
in my opinion even more accurate. But the values they sought are
different from the values that I believe this book of slave narratives
should have. Present day readers are less ready for the over-stress of
phonetic spelling than in the days of local color. Authors realize this:
Julia Peterkin uses a modified Gullah instead of Gonzales' carefully
spelled out Gullah. Howard Odum has questioned the use of goin' for
going since the g is seldom pronounced even by the educated.

Truth to idiom is more important, I believe, than truth to
pronunciation. Erskine Caldwell in his stories of Georgia, Ruth Suckow
in stories of Iowa, and Nora Neale Hurston in stories of Florida Negroes
get a truth to the manner of speaking without excessive misspellings. In
order to make this volume of slave narratives more appealing and less
difficult for the average reader, I recommend that truth to idiom be
paramount, and exact truth to pronunciation secondary.

I appreciate the fact that many of the writers have recorded
sensitively. The writer who wrote "ret" for right is probably as
accurate as the one who spelled it "raght." But in a single publication,
not devoted to a study of local speech, the reader may conceivably be
puzzled by different spellings of the same word. The words "whafolks,"
"whufolks," "whi'foiks," etc., can all be heard in the South. But
"whitefolks" is easier for the reader, and the word itself is suggestive
of the setting and the attitude.

Words that definitely have a notably different pronunciation from the
usual should be recorded as heard. More important is the recording of
words with a different local meaning. Most important, however, are the
turns of phrase that have flavor and vividness. Examples occurring in
the copy I read are:

durin' of de war
outmen my daddy (good, but unnecessarily put into quotes)
piddled in de fields
skit of woods
kinder chillish

There are, of course, questionable words, for which it may be hard to
set up a single standard. Such words are:

paddyrollers, padrollers, pattyrollers   for patrollers
missis, mistess                          for mistress
marsa, massa, maussa, mastuh             for master
ter, tuh, teh                            for to

I believe that there should be, for this book, a uniform word for each
of these.

The following list is composed of words which I think should not be
used. These are merely samples of certain faults:

 1. ah             for       I
 2. bawn           for       born
 3. capper         for       caper
 4. com'           for       come
 5. do             for       dough
 6. ebry, ev'ry    for       every
 7. hawd           for       hard
 8. muh            for       my
 9. nekid          for       naked
10. ole, ol'       for       old
11. ret, raght     for       right
12. sneik          for       snake
13. sowd           for       sword
14. sto'           for       store
15. teh            for       tell
16. twon't         for       twan't
17. useter, useta  for       used to
18. uv             for       of
19. waggin         for       wagon
20. whi'           for       white
21. wuz            for       was

I should like to recommend that the stories be told in the language of
the ex-slave, without excessive editorializing and "artistic"
introductions on the part of the interviewer. The contrast between the
directness of the ex-slave speech and the roundabout and at times
pompous comments of the interviewer is frequently glaring. Care should
be taken lest expressions such as the following creep in: "inflicting
wounds from which he never fully recovered" (supposed to be spoken by an

Finally, I should like to recommend that the words darky and nigger and
such expressions as "a comical little old black woman" be omitted from
the editorial writing. Where the ex-slave himself uses these, they
should be retained.

This material sent June 20 to states of: Ala., Ark., Fla., Ga.,
Ky., La., Md., Miss., Mo., N.C., Ohio, Okla., Tenn., Texas,
Va., and S. Car.

[Document 8]

July 30, 1937.

FROM: Henry G. Alsberg, Director

The following general suggestions are being sent to all the States where
there are ex-slaves still living. They will not apply _in toto_ to your
State as they represent general conclusions reached after reading the
mass of ex-slave material already submitted. However, they will, I hope,
prove helpful as an indication, along broad lines, of what we want.


1. Instead of attempting to interview a large number of ex-slaves the
workers should now concentrate on one or two of the more interesting and
intelligent people, revisiting them, establishing friendly relations,
and drawing them out over a period of time.

2. The specific questions suggested to be asked of the slaves should be
only a basis, a beginning. The talk should run to all subjects, and the
interviewer should take care to sieze upon the information already
given, and stories already told, and from them derive other questions.

3. The interviewer should take the greatest care not to influence the
point of view of the informant, and not to let his own opinion on the
subject of slavery become obvious. Should the ex-slave, however, give
only one side of the picture, the interviewer should suggest that there
were other circumstances, and ask questions about them.

4. We suggest that each state choose one or two of their most successful
ex-slave interviewers and have them take down some stories _word_ for
_word_. Some Negro informants are marvellous in their ability to
participate in this type of interview. _All stories should be as nearly
word-for-word as is possible._

5. More emphasis should be laid on questions concerning the lives of the
individuals since they were freed.


The interviewer should attempt to weave the following questions
naturally into the conversation, in simple language. Many of the
interviews show that the workers have simply sprung routine questions
out of context, and received routine answers.

1. What did the ex-slaves expect from freedom? Forty acres and a mule? A
distribution of the land of their masters' plantation?

2. What did the slaves get after freedom? Were any of the plantations
actually divided up? Did their masters give them any money? Were they
under any compulsion after the war to remain as servants?

3. What did the slaves do after the war? What did they receive
generally? What do they think about the reconstruction period?

4. Did secret organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan exert or attempt to
exert any influence over the lives of ex-slaves?

5. Did the ex-slaves ever vote? If so, under what circumstances? Did any
of their friends ever hold political office? What do the ex-slaves think
of the present restricted suffrage?

6. What have the ex-slaves been doing in the interim between 1864 and
1937? What jobs have they held (in detail)? How are they supported

7. What do the ex-slaves think of the younger generation of Negroes and
of present conditions?

8. Were there any instances of slave uprisings?

9. Were any of the ex-slaves in your community living in Virginia at the
time of the Nat Turner rebellion? Do they remember anything about it?

10. What songs were there of the period?

The above sent to: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Ga., Kentucky, La.,
Md., Mississippi, Mo., N. Car., Okla., S. Car., Tenn., Texas, Virginia,
W. Va., Ohio, Kansas, Indiana.

[Document 9]

September 8, 1937


It would be a good idea if you would ask such of your field workers as
are collecting stories from ex-slaves to try to obtain stories given to
the ex-slaves by their parents and grandparents. The workers should try
to obtain information about family traditions and legends passed down
from generation to generation. There should be a wealth of such material

We have found that the most reliable way to obtain information about the
age of ex-slaves or the time certain events in their lives took place is
to ask them to try to recollect some event of importance of known date
and to use that as a point of reference. For instance, Virginia had a
very famous snow storm called Cox's Snow Storm which is listed in
history books by date and which is well remembered by many ex-slaves. In
Georgia and Alabama some ex-slaves remember the falling stars of the
year 1883. An ex-slave will often remember his life story in relation to
such events. Not only does it help the chronological accuracy of
ex-slave stories to ask for dated happenings of this kind, but it often
serves to show whether the story being told is real or imagined.

Sent the following states:
Alabama    Maryland     Tennessee
Arkansas   Mississippi  Texas
Florida    Missouri     Virginia
Georgia    N. Carolina  West Virginia
Kentucky   Oklahoma     Ohio
Louisiana  S. Carolina  Kansas

End of the Project Gutenberg EBook of Slave Narratives, Administrative Files
(A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves), by Work Projects Administration


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